By Christopher Maag
Two former presidential candidates came together last week to propose a new bill of rights for online consumers. The bill, introduced by senators John Kerry and John McCain, would force companies that gather data about consumers to notify people that their personal information is being tracked, and give individuals the chance to opt-out of behavioural advertising.
The legislation stops short of giving consumers a “Do Not Track” option, similar to “Do Not Call” for telemarketers, which many privacy experts have advocated.
“Companies can harvest our personal information online and keep it for as long as they like it. They can sell it without asking permission or even letting you know that they’re selling your own information,” Senator Kerry told reporters during a press conference. “You shouldn’t have to be a computer genius in order to be able to opt out of information sharing.”
[Related article: Don’t Track Me: The War Over Online Ads Starts Now]
The legislation, named the Commercial Privacy Bill of Rights, would require companies that gather data about consumers to clearly notify consumers about what data is being collected, and why. Data trackers could only collect data they need to serve an immediate business purpose.
Companies also would be required to allow consumers to opt out of the gathering of sensitive, personally identifiable information. This presumably would involve a complicated policy battle. Tracking companies maintain that none of the information they gather can be used to identify individual people.
Privacy and consumer advocates say that’s false.
“They don’t have to know your name to know everything about you,” John Sileo, an identity theft expert, told us in February.
[Related article: FTC “Do Not Track” Proposal: Q&A With A Privacy Advocate]
Many advocates have called on Congress and federal regulators to create a “Do Not Track” list, similar to “Do Not Call” for telemarketers, giving consumers the chance to opt out of online data tracking entirely. The bill proposed by Kerry and McCain contains no such provision.
In their press conference, the senators said they tried to seek a balance between privacy and squelching innovation by online companies.
“Our bill seeks to respect the ability of businesses to advertise and market and recruit new customers while also respecting consumers’ personal information,” McCain said. “But consumers must have control over how their data is used when it is transferred to an unknown third party.”